Marlene Yuen honours the resilience and hard work of early Chinese immigrants by exploring Chinese Canadian labour histories in the Grunt Gallery
Wen Zhai // Contributor
Canadians often consider racism in their country to be something in the past, and look remorsefully at their neighbor across the border being engulfed in constant racial protests and riots with pity and moral contempt. However, Vancouver-based artist Marlene Yuen was painfully reminded of another reality by a man who yelled at her and her eight-year-old daughter on the seawall. “I tried to explain racism to her, and it was a difficult experience for me as a Chinese Canadian and as a mother,” said Yuen. This made Yuen’s new exhibition Cheap! Diligent! Faithful! at the Grunt Gallery all the more important.
Opening Sept. 25 to Dec. 12, the exhibition showcases Yuen’s prints and paper-based artwork that explore Chinese-Canadian labour history. The exhibition is meant to remind people of the racism Chinese immigrants have endured and, most importantly, honor their resilience and hard work. With concise black ink comic drawings and occasionwl blue and yellow colouring on the accordion book stories, Yuen is able to convey strong and clear messages and hold the attention of the audience.
When studying fine arts at the University of British Columbia, Yuen was introduced to various media such as printmaking, drawing and painting. She now works as an Interdisciplinary technician at Emily Carr University while maintaining her 20-year-old art practice, which now includes installations and making books.
Cheap! Diligent! Faithful! is a reiteration of a 2017 exhibition named After Gold Mountain from the Workers Arts and Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. Yuen chose three trade-focused stories to display on the walls: laundry, restaurant and grocery. She also chose two accordion books by Cheng Foo and Mary Ko Bong. Additionally, a new publication about old Chinatown’s Ho Sun Hing Printers was also included with a dedicated site-specific mural. Yuen included the closing of the printer because it was a turning point of the once vibrant Chinatown being gentrified by big developers.
Opening a Chinese immigrant-themed exhibition during a pandemic which disproportionately witnesses hostility and racism against Asians, especially Chinese people, seems sadly prescient. “Funnily, this show was planned last year, before the pandemic. Around March [lockdown], we didn’t even know if this show would even open, but thankfully it did,” Yuen explains. “I think this exhibition is more important now than ever[…] So [many] anti-Asian sentiments came out of the woodwork during COVID-19 and still continues[…] Racism still exists, unfortunately.”
Racism against the Chinese people began out of fear. Ironically, as the exhibition title emphasized, it might be related to the fact that Chinese labourers were hand-picked because they were “cheap, diligent and faithful.” They were paid less than their western counterparts and many lost their lives while building the Canadian Pacific Railway. After that, some Chinese labourers went back to China, while others who could not afford a trip back opened laundry, restaurant or grocery stores—trades that didn’t require a lot of starting funds.
Like many Chinese citizens back then, Yuen’s grandfather had to pay a head tax, which was a racist tax to prevent Chinese immigrants from coming to Canada. Inspired partially by her own family history, Yuen’s motivation is “to increase awareness of Chinese Canadians and their contributions to the workforce in Canada” and, she adds, “to honour the resilience of the Chinese Canadian community as they have often endured much racism throughout Canada’s history.”
Yuen draws attention to two head-strong women—Mary Ko Bong (book work) and Jean Lumb (the comic panel story). She wanted to show that strong Chinese women and children also played a vital part in Canada’s workforce, despite the fact women were seldom mentioned in early Chinese Canadian history. “Ko Bong worked in the WWII war effort as an optics mechanic fixing binoculars and compasses and Jean Lumb was an entrepreneur who gave up her education so her brother could go to school,” explained Yuen. Lumb achieved success not only in her businesses, but also as an activist who fought to end Canada’s racist anti-immigration laws.
Yuen is intimately aware that “racism is a difficult thing to convey,” especially when “many people refuse to believe that Canada is a racist country.” Through comic panel stories, Yuen hopes to invite people of all ages and backgrounds to learn about what really happened to the Chinese diaspora in the early days of Canada. By introducing this central part of Canada’s history, Yuen wants everyone to learn from our shared past, and challenge racism in our future.
For Yuen, younger generations need to be particularly aware of our history, and things like Anti-Asian laws, head taxes, and Chinatown riots. “Chinese-Canadians have made profound contributions to BC’s history, culture and economy. They also endured a lot of racism and their resilience should be celebrated and noted,” Yuen says.